By Stuart Fischoff, published on January 1, 1993 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
and creative peole who shape the national mind.
Dirty Harry on violence, responsibility, and role models?
Precisely. Who better to describe to us, in first-person terms, what the
appeal is in violent films and how far we can go with it. As evidence of
his social influence, "Go ahead, make my day" is now listed in Bartlett's
Book of Familiar Quotations, right up there with Shakespeare and William
Beginning with this interview, we'll be talking with people who
have an impact on our lives in some important way - whether it's through
the media or their work in the laboratory or the therapist's office.
There's no getting around it - movies both reflect and influence our
psyche. Yet with Unforgiven - his latest film - is this
once-Magnum-toting icon expressing regrets about his violent images and
their effect on society? Maybe, but the question remains: Forgive who,
and for what?
Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., for PSYCHOLOGY TODAY: In 1986 you were
quoted as saying, "Movies are fun but they are no cure for cancer." Now
why did you say that?
CE: probably relating the fact that movies may have an
entertainment value, but we are not curing heart disease or AIDS or any
other blight on mankind, so don't get overly enthralled.
PT: Some people could interpret it as meaning that movies should
not be thought of as something which affects our culture. Don't you think
your films have an impact on society?
CE: Well, they might. They might. But if you approach a film with
the feeling that you are going to have some impact on society then you're
liable to get carried away with yourself. Alfred Hitchcock once told me,
when I was analyzing a lot of things about his pictures, "Clint, you must
remember, it's only a movie."
PT: But whether or not you intend to send a message when you make a
film, somehow it impacts on society. "Make my day," for example, was
absorbed into the public consciousness. Can't films be used to teach
people instead of sending messages of violence?
CE: Yeah, I think they can do that. They certainly have the
ability. But I don't think that Hollywood should get to the point of
propagandizing. I mean, it should have its effect unintentionally. I just
would hate to think that Hollywood would start dwelling on that.
PT: Okay, but there's a peculiarity here. One part of your film
career - the "Dirty Harry" aspect of it - contains a lot of violence, as
well as people who use violence to resolve conflicts. There's an argument
that, if enough of these points of view are put in movies or on
television, eventually it becomes an educational experience. So do you
ever consider the social implications of your films before you make
CE: I consider them, yeah. I consider the social implications. But
you mention violence as a means of resolving conflict. Well, conflict is
the basis of drama. I guess that goes back as long as time has existed as
far as mankind is concerned, dating back to the Greek tragedies or the
Old Testament. And violence is a form of conflict, so whether that's
catharsis or whether that has some socially damaging effect on audiences
- I suppose that would just depend. I tend to believe that audiences are
relatively well-balanced people. You're making the film for the average
person. You are not making it for the one guy out there who is going to
take it seriously and go, "Yeah, gee, that's crazy, I might jump off a
building or what have you."
PT: Did you think about the social messages of the "Dirty Harry"
CE: I approached it from the uncomplicated point of view, that it
was an exciting detective story but it also addressed the issue of the
victims of violent crime. In the 1960s and early '70s, it was very
fashionable to address the plight of the criminals instead of the
victims. Dirty Harry came along and it seemed like it was ahead of its
And also, like my character in White Hunter, Black Heart said, you
can't let eighty million popcorn-eaters pull you this way or that way.
You kind of have to go ahead. But as you get older you try to do things
that please you more. You get a little more selfish. You start thinking I
want to do things where I enjoy myself. I don't want to go and just jump
across buildings. You know, shoot nameless people off the top of
stagecoaches or what have you. That's not interesting. That's why
Unforgiven became a very important film for me, because it sort of summed
up my feelings about certain movies I participated in - movies where
killing is romantic. And here was a chance to show that it really wasn't
PT: But after the first "Dirty Harry" movie, the political and
social controversy that swirled around you is something you couldn't
avoid noticing and reacting to.
CE: Yeah. But I went my own way. Because attitudes change. I
remember when I did Play Misty For Me in 1970, the first film I ever
directed, some lady got up at a film festival and asked, "Why are you so
oppressive to women in your films?". And I thought, I wasn't oppressive
to women. We were dealing with films that had very prominent roles for
women and I felt I was actually contributing something. Many people had
wondered why I would want to do a film where the best part was a woman's
part. But I wasn't afraid to be the lesser intelligence in a film.
PT: So you really don't think of yourself as being particularly
uncharitable to women in the films you have control over?
CE: Oh, no. I think I've always reached out the other way. And
partly selfishly because the films that I grew up on, the ones that had a
strong female presence - whether it's It Happened One Night or Gone With
The Wind - the stronger the female presence, the better catalyst it is
for the male protagonist. I remember in the Fifties, it was really
depressing for women. They were all portrayed as the girl next door in
ponytail and jeans and nothing much with any substance at all. And I used
to wonder, where are the roles that Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis used
PT: That's odd, because other people would characterize the women
in your films as not having the prominence or strength that you just
suggested. In fact, one of the interesting aspects about Unforgiven was
that here was a film where Clint Eastwood is actually redeemed by a woman
- his dead wife. He's taken out of a life of crime and alcoholism, and
she carries this influence over from the grave. Yet since she's dead at
the beginning of the movie, we never see her. Is the only way a woman can
be strong in an Eastwood movie to be dead?
CE: No. Because, by the same token, there are the whores in the
movie who are the catalyst for the story. Their concern about justice or
lack of justice on their behalf was a very important aspect of the film.
And I think women were intrigued by that, because normally a Western
carries kind of an all-male stigma. I think women were a little shocked
to find that it wasn't just a male action picture.
PT: The character of Ned Logan in Unforgiven is played by Morgan
Freeman. In the film, nobody reacts to his being black. Why?
CE: That part was written for a white man. The only thing I added
was the whipping, because I felt that the character was a post-slavery
man. I didn't want to add the racial element or the element of racial
slurs. The role could have been played by a white man or a black man or a
man of any race. I'd like to think that we are at the point where it is
PT: Would you ever make another "Dirty Harry" movie?
CE: I wouldn't only because I think that character's been worked to
death. But a similar movie might come along and it might have a lot of
interesting things in it. But there would have to be something compelling
about the action-something in the story that is really unusual or
interesting. I never objected to the violence in Unforgiven because I
knew that there was something to say about it. But I do object to it in
films when I see it just kind of gratuitously thrown about. Because a lot
of times there are people who approach films and say, "Look, you've got
to have an action scene every six minutes in order to make a commercial
film," and they have sort of a formula. They may be right; I don't know.
I don't claim to be an expert. A lot of dumb pictures have made a lot of
money but that doesn't mean they're going to be anything cinema students
will revel over in the future.
You are always hoping that movie audiences are interested in
characters and interested in story values rather than just mindless
special effects. But you never know. You are constantly fooled. I never
felt I had any great handle on it. I do everything, I pull everything out
of the gut a lot of times. I don't really get into a big intellectual
analysis of why I am going to do a certain script or not.
PT: You've been asked a lot of times about whether your films
reflect your own personal thinking or own personal values. But I'm
wondering whether somehow the roles you play begin to affect the way you
think? That is, that you create a role and the role returns the
CE: Well, I think there is some validity to that There are aspects
of characters I've played that I might like but I don't like all the
things about him. In Dirty Harry, the whole romance of the film is the
fact that he's a guy who hates bureaucracy. Well, who doesn't hate
bureaucracy? How many guys working in a factory somewhere haven't had a
problem with some bureaucrat? You go to the Motor Vehicle and you have to
fill out form after form. Or you go here and you fill out forms. At
Social Security or Unemployment you're filling out forms. That's part of
the bureaucratic nightmare that mankind has made for himself. There's
Then there's also the romance of somebody who would expend a
tremendous amount of energy on behalf of somebody they didn't even know,
which I think is sort of a fantasy that people would like to think police
officers might have. That if they were in trouble out there some guy
would work hard on their behalf, even to the point of shoving the law to
one side. Idealistically you'd say, well it's not fair, I mean there are
certain rules you have to play by but there become exceptions in the
course. Naturally, when you are doing a drama you are always telling the
exception. Because the exception is always more interesting than the
PT: A person like you who is powerful and a movie star is going to
attract a lot of young women. At 58, 60 years old, does that do anything
to you? Does it make you think you've found the fountain of youth?
CE: The prospect of dating someone in her twenties becomes less
appealing as you get older. At some point in your fife, your tolerance
level goes down and you realize that, with someone much younger, there's
nothing really to talk about. And I think we're at a point now where a
lot of older women take better care of themselves, compared to the 1940s
and '50s when women were programmed to figure it's all over after 30. 1
find a lot of appeal in a woman if she's kept herself well in her forties
I have a friend who's been dating women of the same age since he
was 20. I told him that's great, but what do you say to her afterwards?
If you don't smoke, what do you say? Do you talk about the weather or Jon
Bon Jovi? I don't know. A guy who feels he's older because he dates
someone 45, it's strange. Guys like that, if they have a family and a
daughter, they might end up dating someone their daughter's age or
younger. It's a little confusing. My daughter's 20, and I would find it a
problem if I met a friend of hers and was attracted to her.
PT: Do you sexually neutralize your daughter's friends?
CE: Yes, I think I do so instinctively.
PT: Are you a positive role model?
CE: For who? I guess any movie actor can become a role model for
audiences out there who enjoy him.
PT: Do you feel any responsibility or burden that goes along with
being a role model? Has it influenced you in your public or screen or
CE: Well, I think the only way it has influenced me is to cause me
to try to branch out and do other things. So that people will know that I
am reaching out and trying to be a little more versatile. So they realize
he is not a "Dirty Harry." He doesn't advocate martial law or mayhem -
it's a character.
PT: Is there too much explicit violence in Hollywood films
CE: Probably, yeah.
CE: Probably because people, when they start making films, take the
element that they think works. Hollywood seems to succumb to fads. Well,
action films do well. Give me violence. Give me a scene where there's a
couple of car chases or shooting and stuff like that. They're forgetting
the fact that there's a basic structure to a story that is essential to
making it really broad and appealing.
PT: Are you referring to the attitude that everything is gratuitous
-the gratuitous sex, gratuitous violence, sort of morally nihilistic,
whatever will work? Whatever we can make a buck on?
CE: Yeah, but I don't know. I hate to be in a position to start
criticizing. It's very, very difficult for me at this point in my life to
say, well, you know these young guys come along, they shouldn't be doing
this shit, considering I've made a career out of mayhem to some degree or
another. But I always like to think that for the most part I was doing it
within the realm of a story and character development, but that's
certainly in the eyes of the beholder and there could be people who take
issue with that.
PT: Do you have any regrets for any of the films you've
CE: You know I can't have regrets because I don't believe in them.
Naturally, everybody has certain things they wish they hadn't done in
life. They wish they hadn't kicked their dog when they were ten or
something. There are many things you can go back and have regrets about.
I don't like doing that. But by the same token I do agree that when you
get to a certain stage in life, you change. And you should change. People
ask if you've changed since such and such? Well, of course I've changed.
Now whether I've changed for the better or for the worse becomes another
point. if a person is constantly evolving, constantly reading new
material and being exposed to new material and growing in life, then
you're becoming, hopefully, a more intelligent and well-rounded
individual. If you're not then something's wrong and you're sliding back
in the other direction.
PT: Getting back to society. What if somebody said to you - like
what happens with some rock stars - that some guy killed somebody, and
when he was taken to court he said, "I did it because of Clint Eastwood.
I saw him use that gun in this way. I saw him blow this guy away and I
was inspired to do the same thing."
CE: Yeah, well, I wouldn't like that at all. And I like to think
that most audiences know the difference. I mean they may go and they may
fantasize, and they may like to be able to say they had a big fantasy
about the Dirty Harry character - not so much the fact that he's a man of
action and that he shoots well, but also the fact that he knows what to
say and do at the right time. Everybody wishes they had the ability to
say, "Go ahead, make my day" at the time. But most people don't. Most
people, the boss gives them a lot of crap and they go out and they say,
"Why didn't I tell him to such and such and so and so;" because they
can't think on their feet that fast. So you get a fantasy character who
thinks on his feet and right away the boss says something to him and he
says, "Your mouthwash ain't making it." Or some little deal like that.
And they fantasize with that and it's kind of a real true escapism.
Because nobody really has that ability unless they happen to be extremely
clever and are attuned to that sort of thing - to be able to come back
and operate that way.
PT: But you said you wouldn't like it if some kid said that he shot
somebody because of you.
CE: No. I wouldn't like it at all.
PT: But would you accept it?
CE: You know I've had people come up and ask me to sign their guns.
Sign my name on gun handles and holsters and stuff. I've done it once or
twice for law enforcement officials, but when people do that - and there
have been quite a few of them lately - I always tell them no. I don't
want to do that. I don't want my name on that and I hope you use this gun
- whatever its purpose is, I hope it's used wisely.
PT: You could live with it, though?
CE: Yeah. Id have to live with it inside of me. It's just a sick
mind. What starts John Hinckley into doing his program, whatever his
program becomes in life. I mean he could turn around and just out of the
blue blame it on somebody. Whether it's the old deal of saying, Jeez, my
mother whipped me when I was little or my father yelled at me or
something. Everybody is looking for a reason to not to take
responsibility for their own actions in hand, anyway. That's kind of like
the way the world is. So I would accept it but I wouldn't like it. I
would hate to think - I guess every actor likes to think his fans are
special, that they would be above that sort of thing. That they would
realize that this is just an act and as soon as they walk out of the
theater forget it all.
PT: Have you ever been stalked?
CE: Yeah. I have.
PT: You might not want to talk about this. I know that it's a
delicate area for most celebrities now. Do you feel that's the example of
the sick mind who sees your movie and loses touch with reality and
over-identifies, doesn't know what the hell is going on and comes after
you because of some fantasized grievance or psychological
CE: Yeah. I've had people. I've had threats. Also as a politician,
and even in a small community like Carmel, but as being a movie actor
turned politician I've had them and there are a certain amount of cases
on file. But I think every personality has to deal, has to five with that
a little bit.
There was one recently where the F.B.I. had gone to see the guy
because he had made some threats over the phone and left it on tape. And
they said the guy seemed quite normal until they mentioned my name and he
PT: He wasn't a frustrated Hollywood writer was he?
CE: No. No. But it's those kinds of minds that get out there,
they're not rational about anything.
PT: Would you say that, if people emulate you based upon a screen
persona, then society would be better off for it?
CE: Well, maybe certain elements. I really don't know. I can't
really grasp onto that. Whether society is better off for me having
existed in the film business. I don't know whether I want that.
PT: Well, do you think there are people around who are negative
role models? Entertainers today who are having a detrimental effect
because of their behavior or what they are promoting?
CE: Yeah. I think there probably are some.
PT: What about gangster rap, which often advocates violence?
CE: Oh, like that Ice T? I don't see any values to any of that,
other than that it's appealing to the very worst in a crowd.
PT: Do you think that the violence that has been in many of your
films is more justified than the violence that's being advocated or
promoted in gangster rap?
CE: Yeah. To depict a law-enforcement agency as the villain in
society is a little bit of a tough one to swallow, because after all
there are abuses in everything. But to say that's the cause of all the
ills of society is really pretty heavy. But we are in a sort of fall-guy
generation. We are always looking for someone else's fault as to why
everything is. Everybody's looking to blame everybody. I guess the L. A.
riots would be an example. Everybody's looking for someone else to blame
as to why it all got that way and there are millions of different
answers. Probably all of them have some smidge of validity
PT: Let's say, though, that there's a legitimate basis for a group
of people perceiving the police differently than you do. Then the
question is, does their commentary in the gangster rap have as much
legitimacy as, say, yours does in talking about corruption in politics or
even films that dealt with the corruption of the police? Is your resort
to violence or advocacy of violent methods to resolve things better than
CE: I don't know. I think I know what you're saying. Everyone deals
with what their relationship is to police officers. But it's like saying
a woman who has been a victim of rape - does she hate all men for the
rest of her life and put out records about the male gender being an
absolutely animalistic human form that doesn't deserve any credibility
Everyone can do that in every frame of life. I understand it.
Before I became wellknown I've had incidents with the police. I've been
stopped and rousted around. Stuff where you could have wished ill-will on
them. Maybe that happens a lot more in the ghetto? I'm sure it
PT: Have you stayed away from topics that might hurt you at the box
office or have a negative effect on your image?
CE: No, I haven't. I never knew what my image was or cared that
much really. I just like to do it because I like to do it. I don't think
I'm worried about it. There's nothing I wouldn't attempt if it was within
the realm of a good story.
PT: When your kids were growing up did you not let them see certain
CE: I tried to regulate certain things. There's so much television
on, so much stuff on. I just tried to have discussions with them about
what was quality and what was not quality, regardless of what it was. But
yeah, I tried as much as possible.
PT: Did you ever not let them see one of your films?
CE: No. At a certain age I didn't let them see it but at some age I
would. I always tried to let them know I was just an actor acting a
PT: You funded a drug-rehabilitation program for adolescents in the
Monterey Peninsula and, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, helped equip and
gather donations for the Carmel Youth Center. Do most of your social-work
efforts center around children?
CE: Most of them do.
CE: They're the next generation. Everyone professes to want kids,
and very few do it with any planning. No one ever analyzes the
consequences of having kids. There is a great deal of satisfaction and
also disappointment with kids, so a lot of people just farm them out. A
lot of communities just want to get rid of them, dump them off on some
youth center and then go off. I worry about that.
CE: Yeah, yeah. I think there is a shadow government there. It's
sort of part of the soul. But it's probably a combination of what you
are. The shadow government is something running inside you and you don't
tap into it consciously. If you do, you're afraid it might shrink.
PT: That's a fear that a lot of artists have. It's really
CE: I think so. I think a lot of people feel and I must say I felt
that same way, too - that if I start fooling with it maybe it will go
away or maybe I won't look at it properly.
PT: Have you ever been asked to speak out on a social or political
CE: I've only spoken out in forums or interviews. I've never gone
out and stumped for a certain issue, campaigned for a certain issue.
Except for my experience in the Carmel government.
CE: Because I either didn't feel that strong about a topic or there
were feelings about it that I wanted to wrap up in my brain before I did
something like that. Id have to be pretty well sold on the subject. Maybe
that's a chicken-shit way to be.
PT. I understand. I would imagine that there are some artists who
have said "I am in favor of this issue, that candidate, but I can't
afford to do it. I can't afford to come out in support of him or
CE: Because they might say, "Gee, I'd hate to alienate all those
people who are pro-life who line up to buy my records or see my movie" or
CE: Yeah. There probably are people who feel that way, but then
some other people feel strong enough that they don't give a damn.
PT: What about you?
CE: Well, I don't give a damn about that particular issue. I think
there is a lot of misinformation on and a lot of passion on both sides.
By the same token I don't stand around with signs and say I am pro-choice
or pro-life or what have you.
PT: Cause that's not part of your personality?
CE: It's just not part of my personality. Also, those things
usually magnify. You do one of those things and pretty soon everybody
wants you to do something else. And pretty soon they want you to be on
another thing. I've done this before. I said openly I support so and
PT: ...you have?
CE: And pretty soon somebody will say okay, come on over here. You
can do a benefit here and a benefit there. You're just opening up a
Pandora's box. So you might still support the person or the cause but you
don't want to get out there. I'd have to be pretty well sold on an
PT: What do you think about censorship?
CE: I've never liked censorship, particularly so because of having
grown up when censorship of the movies involved the Hays Office and the
PT: What about the relationship between Hollywood and Washington
CE: I hope we never go back to that nightmarish era. There are
people who don't remember what it was like when people went to Tijuana to
get abortions or when they were done by anyone who wanted to make a buck.
How many lives were ruined, emotionally or otherwise? To go back to that
era would be frightening. But you see signs of it all the time. Whenever
a congressman wants a little publicity, he goes on a tirade about the
PT: Hypothetical question: Suppose it is the 1950s and you are
asked to testify at the McCarthy hearings, to name names. What would you
CE: I'd like to think I'd fight against it. I'd run against
McCarthy! I'd run for his seat in the Senate!
PHOTOS (6): Clint Eastwood
PHOTO: Eastwood's back In the Line of Fire, with director Wolgang
PHOTO: FISCHOFF AND EASTWOOD SQUARED OFF DURING THE FILMING OF IN
THE LINE OF FIRE. (PATRICE MEIGNEUX)